Carrie Worth, research pilot and Gulfstream lead project pilot at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center at Edwards, Calif., can tell you the exact moment she decided she wanted to fly.
Growing up in Big Bend, Wisc., with relatives in Fond du Lac about an hour away, the Oshkosh EAA Fly-in was a yearly summer outing for her family,
“I distinctively remember one year when I was in grade school, and I was starting to get more interested. I knew I liked airplanes. I thought I might wanna fly,” Worth said.
During an aerobatic performance with an EXTRA EA-260 plane, Worth was “watching this pilot do these things that I couldn’t even believe are possible with an airplane.”
Naturally shy, the eight- or nine-year-old turned to her father as the plane taxied in and said uncharacteristically, “I wanna meet the pilot; I wanna know how he did that.”
As the young girl watched the glamorous female aerobatic pilot Patty Wagstaff step out of the airplane, Worth turned to her father and said, “Now I can be a pilot.”
“I was exposed to aviation at a young age, but it wasn’t until I saw her get out of the airplane that it clicked,” Worth said. “I knew then.”
Years later, as a lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, Worth was able to relate the story to Wagstaff, who asked why she hadn’t come up to speak to her.
“I was brave enough until I saw you standing there, and I was brave enough to want to meet the pilot. And then something about seeing you made me know I could be a pilot.
“But then I was too shy again to come speak to you,” Worth said.
Now, after a 21-year military career where she logged more than 5,800 hours of flight time, including more than 1,100 combat hours, and working as an instructor pilot, evaluator pilot, and aircraft commander in multiple aircraft, including the C-21A, M/HC-130P, and CN-235, Worth is the one speaking to and inspiring young girls to become pilots.
Having that personal connection with someone who looks like you and is doing what you yearn to accomplish is so important in getting underrepresented people into aviation, according to Worth.
“There’s a there’s a great organization called Sisters of the Skies. And it’s made up of Black women, who are less than half of 1 percent of the aviation world. And that’s not even getting into breaking it down into maintenance and air traffic control,” Worth said.
“So, it started as a small group of women saying, ‘We’re just gonna get pictures and videos and information of us out there,’ and now it’s just grown. It’s huge. And they’re making a difference because little girls have someone who looks like them.”
That’s why she and fellow pilot Jennifer Aupke started The Milieux Project, a 501(c)(3) with a mission to connect girls to aviation.
“I flew fixed wing and she flew rotary wing. She flew the helicopters and people assumed since we were both female lieutenant colonels, that we must have always known each other forever, but we had never met before,” Worth said.
“Hanging out in the backyard in South Georgia, we realized that despite never meeting each other, our stories were all lining up of the experiences we had, all the challenges we faced, how we overcame them and who were the people that we had, who were allies to support us in our careers.
“We decided then and there that we need to give better advice than we got.”
The women started a blog, assuming someone out there would connect with their stories. As their contacts grew, they decided on founding the Milieux Project, which is French for “social environment,” which encourages young women and helps connect them to sources to aid their aviation aspirations.
Ask Worth what type of flying she enjoys the most, and the answer is unequivocable — combat search and rescue ó which she did in Afghanistan and Iraq. “I loved it: night vision goggles, landing in the dirt, and helping people out on their worst day. Refueling helicopters. Going in to rescue injured personnel. I loved everything about it. The camaraderie among all the community of combat search and rescue,” she said.
“Sleeping on a cot I loved. Nobody thinks about living in a tent in the Air Force. I loved how hard and challenging it was because it was also incredibly rewarding.”
Worth also experienced a different type of search and rescue in support of Hurricane Katrina, where a fellow airman debriefed her for information about where she flew, desperate for information about her family.
“When you’re doing it at home, it just breaks your heart a different way,” Worth said.
After a joint staff position as chief of Strategy Plans and Policy for Headquarters Special Operations Command Europe from 2011 to 2013 in Stuttgart, Germany, she was offered an opportunity to come back to search and rescue as a commander.
“They’re not even finished asking the question before I said ‘Yes!,’” Worth recalls. “So, I kind of started and finished my military career there: The perfect bookend.”
When asked about sexism she might have encountered in the military, Worth said her negative experiences were mild compared to those in pilot training when it was opened to women in the late 1970s.
“There were always people who didn’t think you belong there, or thought you got there because the Air Force was filling a quota or assumed, ‘Oh, we must not have had enough girls in the last class,’ but they were far outweighed by my classmates who were supportive.”
Some classmates’ wives refused to let them participate in study groups with Worth or made accusations when they returned from travel with her, but she said the negatives were better once she was stationed than in the academy.
The most sexism she encountered was career fields not being open to females. Those graduating in the 1970s and 1980s could fly, but not all aircraft. When Worth graduated in 1998, many fields were open, but not all: “You could fly fighters. You could fly bombers, but there were still a lot of closed communities like special operations,” a role she did take on later in her career.
Worth retired from the military in 2018 after her selection for the rank of colonel, and started flying the Boeing 747-400 and 747-8F aircraft for UPS. Although she enjoyed her new commercial aviation career, she pursued a childhood dream and joined the flight operations directorate at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, Calif., in March 2021. She now flies the Gulfstream G-III mission support aircraft.
Now Worth spends time mentoring with TuskegeeNEXT, PreFlight Aviation Camp, and NASA STEM outreach programs, heeding the words of a male commander who told her, “Carrie, when you have a seat at the table, your job is look around and see who’s missing. Be that advocate. Be that voice.”
“While I realize my experience is not everyone’s experience — and I know I cannot speak for everyone ó my aviation career has been phenomenal and I am grateful for everyone who supported me, and also for those who were not supportive ó they also drove me to succeed.”
To help young women interested in aviation, contact:
The Milieux Project: www.themilieux.org Instagram: @milieuxproject LinkedIn: The Milieux Project
Sisters of the Skies: www.sistersoftheskies.org
PreFlight Aviation Camp: www.preflightcamp.org
Legacy Flight Academy: www.legacyflightacademy.org